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Raiffeisen Arena Linz, 29 October 2020
LASK recorded their first victory of the 2020-21 UEFA Europa League Group Stage with a thrilling 4-3 victory over Bulgarian champions Ludogorets. A brace from Husein Balic, an Andreas Gruber strike and a Marko Raguz wonder volley had put the Linz side in a seemingly unassailable position, but Elvis Manu’s hat-trick – including a penalty after Lukas Grgic had been sent off with 18 minutes to go – made for an extremely nervy finish, but LASK held on for a memorable victory.
Both clubs were looking for their first points of their respective Europa League campaigns after defeats on Matchday 1. LASK had come unstuck 3-0 away to tournament favourites Tottenham Hotspur in London – however Ludogorets came into the game in a perilous position after losing to Pot Four side Royal Antwerp at home, thus causing the sacking of manager Pavel Vrba over the weekend and forcing Stanislav Genchev into his second interim spell in charge. LASK only had one change from the weekend’s thumping 4-0 victory over St. Pölten with Johannes Eggestein making way for Balic.
It was an inspired decision as Balic put his name on the scoresheet within two minutes after receiving the ball midway in Ludogorets’ half and unleashed a fearsome strike directly the bottom corner from 20 yards – exactly the start that Dominik Thalhammer would’ve wanted from his side
LASK continued the pressure early after a deflected free-kick span into the direction of Gruber who forced a save from Plamen Iliev at the near post. Then, just like that, it was two. From the resulting corner, Peter Michorl’s teasing delivery was dummied by two players and found Gruber in space to caress the ball into the net and double the lead.
The Bulgarian champions struck back almost immediately when Alex Santana found space fortuitously and played a weighted pass into the path of Manu who halved the deficit with a deft finish to make it 2-1.
LASK’s major attacking threat continued to be from the dangerous corners of Michorl who firstly found the head of Petar Filipovic who knocked the ball inches wide, quickly followed by the former Austria Under-21 international’s next delivery deflecting off a hapless Stephane Badji half a metre wide of the upright. The Razgrad side should’ve levelled it up on the half hour mark but, despite a clear sight of goal, Santana’s strike flew wide of Alexander Schlager’s goal.
Then, on the 35-minute mark, a moment of genius lit up the Linz night as Andres Andrade’s looping cross was met with a stunning volley from Raguz from the edge of the box. The 22-year-old has made a habit of excellent goals in the UEFA Europa League, with four already this season, but this might’ve been the finest one yet.
The first half finished with a daisy cutter from Wiesinger almost forcing a mistake from Iliev, followed by Balic seeing an effort deflected wide as the Black-Whites went into half-time on top.
Opening scorer Balic doubled his total for the game in the 56th minute, LASK’s fourth in a pulsating display. After his initial strike had been blocked, the ball came back to the Steyr-native who saw his second effort deflected not once – but twice – and into the back of the net.
LASK continued to pile on the pressure, but a Ludogorets breakaway in the 67th minute saw Manu in acres of space and time to pick his spot to make it 4-2, giving the Parva Liga side a glimmer of hope heading into the final quarter of the game – although Schlager tried his utmost to save. The LASK keeper was called upon again after Badji tried his luck from 40 yards but the Austrian international was more than a match for the attempt.
With 18 minutes to go, the drama truly began as Lukas Grgic was sent off by Spanish referee Xavier Estrada Fernandez after a supposed handball in the area. Elvis Manu stepped up for the penalty and fired into the top corner for his hat-trick as LASK were forced to play the final minutes with a one-man disadvantage.
However, the Black-Whites stayed firm defensively with Gernot Trauner in inspirational form. Despite the 10-men, LASK almost added a fifth after Raguz had slalomed by three defenders but saw his eventual effort go agonisingly wide. Ludogorets pressed and pressed for an equaliser to no avail as LASK saw out the final minutes for the victory and their first three points of the campaign. Next up – a double header against surprise group leaders Royal Antwerp.
LASK: Schlager, Wiesinger, Trauner (c), Filipovic, Ranftl, Grgic, Michorl, Andrade, Gruber (Goiginger 61), Raguz, Balic (Eggestein 61)
Goals: Balic 2’, 56’, Gruber 11’, Raguz 35’
Red card: Grgic 71’
Ludogorets: Iliev, Nedyalkov, Verdon, Moti (c), Cicinho, Yankov (Tchibota 80), Santana, Badji, Tekpetey (Ikoko 88), Manu, Anicet Abel
Goals: Manu 13’, 67’, 72’
by Simon Clark from The Other Bundesliga